From a great height

Since moving from Melbourne to Canberra, one of the things I've missed the most has been the quiet, ongoing kindness and support of a physically present writing community. Yesterday I was taken aback, and frankly baffled, to see many in this community assassinated in character (I think) in Luke Carman's essay for Meanjin, 'Getting Square in a Jerking Circle'. I say 'I think' because this 10-page screed is so shrouded in coyness and obtuse language that I can only guess, not know, that it was they that Carmen was talking about.

The essay purports to give an 'insider's view' of an industry in crisis; in it, Carman goes in on the unnamed shadow figures that prop up Melbourne's arts infrastructure, arguing that most if not all of these are power-hungry 'anti-artists', failed writers or no writers at all, looking for power in their own dissemination of opinion and critique. He also takes a swing at universities - "Much of the blame for creating the chasm in our culture from which these deluded demi-gods of arts management must have arisen must lie within our universities," - and perpetuates the myth of the creative writing course as predatory, which I have already rebutted, in a cranky mood, here.

I won't recapitulate Carman's arguments, because frankly I don't understand them. The essay seems to be a veiled hit piece aimed at two or three particular people in the Melbourne arts administration ecosystem, dragging in everyone around them as a class, but names are never broached. I do think he feints at one in particular; if I am correct, Carmen's dig at arts admins for allegedly performing and exploiting mental illness is breathtakingly callous, and utterly gratuitous to any argument he might otherwise be making. 

This is an industry in crisis not because of the presence of one or two 'anti-artist' dickheads, but because it is highly-skilled, underpaid, and utterly fucked by federal and politics; it requires incessant unpaid overtime, fluctuating contact hours, and periods of intense stress. It is also an industry in which mental health, and access to adequate healthcare, are pressing concerns. We lost someone important last year; it's not hypothetical. Becoming more open about and inclusive of mental health issues is not an indulgence, but a necessity. 

Likewise - and it may not be evident to Carman, who can publish a book with 'Man' in the title and not worry about where it will be shelved - arts administration is predominantly women's work. Like teaching and nursing, it is 'support' work in which an enormous amount of emotional labour is required, unremunerated, and mostly taken for granted. The work of these women is largely invisible; it is often the grant-writing that writers don't know how to do, the advocacy they cannot engage in singly, the access issues resolved. This liaison work is crucial to the existence of writers as a professional class, and we could not function without it. Our utter dependence on them risks burning them out completely.

I'm sure in the next few days a number of pieces will come out defending Carmen's piece as a 'necessary provocation' - but from where I sit, it looks a lot like pissing on women and the mentally ill from a great height. If Carman had actually named names - if he were able to point to issues that were structurally wrong, or identify actors who were genuinely going against writers' best interests, or provide evidence of any of the issues he alludes to - I would have some respect for the decision to publish this. As it is, I have no time for someone who gestures towards the presence of a boil, but lacks the integrity or guts to name and lance it.

In the midst of his kvetching, Carmen makes mention of the publication of Ivor Indyk's article in the Sydney Review of Books exoriating the middlebrow, and its ongoing critiques and correspondences; Indyk is Carman's publisher, by the way. It's hard not to be cynical and suggest that Carmen is trying to place himself at the centre of a similar storm in a teapot. I know that I am being drawn into such a storm, but I hate to think of the women I know who work themselves to the bone, for and on behalf of other people, being accused of power-mongering when their work is most often completely unrecognised. 

As for the complaint that arts admins are failed or errant artists, I can only think of the Tuesday morning writing group that met before work at the Wheeler, where the self-same admins took the time to support and critique each other's creative work so that it would not be neglected in the face of their enormous workloads. The participants of this group, again, were mostly women, and they had grown adept at balancing their necessary creative openness and vulnerability with the hardheadedness needed for their work. Because of this skill, I know that most of them can roll with the punches. But they shouldn't have to, and they deserve a lot better than to be made collateral damage in the service of someone else's shadowboxing.